Bravo to Michael Melchior

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I am hardly a fan of Rabbi Michael Melchior’s politics. But I must commend the Labor-Meimad MK who, as chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, is taking a major step toward breaking the religious-secular impasse in the woefully ailing educational system.

I hope that on this occasion, Knesset members will overcome their political differences and not be deterred by Shas and other haredi parties from supporting Melchior’s proposal. It is gratifying that the legislation has the blessing of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, whose inclination, traditionally, has been to oppose any initiative likely to strengthen the Jewish content of the curriculum. That mainstream National Religious Party Knesset members support the legislation is also encouraging.

The progressively declining Israeli education system is comprised of four separate unrelated streams – state secular, state religious, haredi (hinuch atzmi) and Arab. Each stream acts independently, and the haredi and Arab streams do not even pretend to be committed to a core curriculum of secular knowledge and civic obligations. This system encourages the stereotyping of differing types of Israelis, many of whom rarely interface with one another aside from military service or at the workplace. This unquestionably contributes to the alienation and tribalization currently plaguing Israeli society.

The secular state stream, which caters to the majority of Israelis, is now undergoing a national identity crisis. The secular Zionist founding fathers, headed by Ben-Gurion, sought to utilize the Hebrew Bible as a central pillar of the curriculum to create love of the land and promote it as the core of a secular Jewish narrative. Graduates of those times can testify to their knowledge of the Bible and confirm that it provided them with a positive orientation towards the state, the people and the land.

Regrettably, over the years, more “enlightened” education ministers sought to reinforce universal at the expense of national values, and much of the Jewish content of the curriculum – Bible studies included – was diluted to such an extent that critics even began dubbing secular school graduates “Hebrew-speaking Canaanites.”

With the emergence of post-modernism and post-Zionism, national values were further undermined. Anti-Zionist textbooks, which planted seeds of doubt about the moral justification for the creation of the Jewish state, were even introduced.

In this climate of declining national values, hedonistic elements whose overriding objectives in life were self gratification and consumerism emerged. The deconstruction of Zionist idealism led to the repudiation of the foundation pillars of Israeli society such as volunteerism and national loyalty.The once-sacred obligation to serve in the IDF began to erode, especially among some of the “enlightened elites.” Children of leaders and business elites who rejected Jewish national values became prominent among those emigrating to greener pastures abroad, especially the fleshpots of North America, Australia and Europe.

A numerically smaller stream caters for the state religious camp. By and large they continue to produce the most motivated and patriotic graduates in the nation. Yet they too face new challenges, such as growing haredization that is manifested by a greater stringency (which many of the older generation regard as too extreme) in the application of ritual laws and a growing rejection of modernism. They also interact less with non-observant Israelis, which encourages mutual stereotyping and intolerance and has brought about a decline in the moderation for which religious Zionists were once renowned.

This contrasts with modern orthodox schools in Diaspora communities, where children of non-observant households are encouraged – even enticed – to enroll in Jewish schools to receive a Jewish education. Here in Israel, with rare exceptions such as the Tali schools and other semi-independent boutique schools, children from non-observant families are denied entry, making it almost impossible for them to be provided with an education encompassing an appreciation of their Jewish heritage. This sector is thus polarized and forced to choose between adopting a total religious life style or virtually denying its children a broad Jewish education.

The third stream, the haredi one, is currently undergoing exponential growth. As of now, nearly 25 percent of all Israeli first grade schoolchildren attend haredi schools. In the past, provision of state aid was conditional upon acceptance of a core curriculum designed to ensure minimum secular standards. However Prime Minister Olmert and Tamir recently waived this requirement as part of the concessions made to retain Shas in the coalition. That means that one in four schoolchildren will not receive an education that would assist them in obtaining gainful employment. With many of their rabbis urging them to concentrate on full-time learning and to reject working for their livelihoods, a substantial proportion will remain dependent on welfare for their entire lives. In other words, the haredi system will continue producing a huge underclass of Israelis, many of whom will remain permanent economic burdens on the state as well as evading their national service obligations.

The Arab school system poses even greater problems. It now actively promotes radicalization and alienation from the state. Some teachers even encourage attitudes that could be described as treasonable. Yet recently Tamir agreed to provide Arab schools with textbooks promoting the Nakba – the day of mourning for the Arab dispersion following the establishment of Israel.

The biggest loser of all from this chaotic system is the nation itself. The problem is not merely the absence of a common core curriculum and of courses promoting civic obligations. The current system actually institutionalizes divisions among school-age youngsters by segregating them in self-imposed ghettos, which invariably breed intolerance. It also creates a fertile environment in which post-Zionists, Arabs and others are enabled to promote “a state for all its citizens” – the code message for a state devoid of Jewish values.

The new “mixed” educational stream proposed by Melchior would permit those who either are not observant or are merely traditional (probably the bulk of the nation) to provide their children with a broad Jewish education encompassing an appreciation of Jewish civilization. It would also provide bridges to enable youngsters from religious and nonreligious backgrounds to indulge in dialogue and learn to respect and even appreciate one another.

We can only hope that Melchior will succeed in transforming into law his bill, which has already been approved by the Knesset in its first reading. If such a new system is created, it will have wide appeal – even the potential for ultimately becoming the dominant stream – as well as paving the way for wider reforms.

Beyond immediate physical security needs, there is absolutely nothing more vital for our future than to reform our decrepit educational system and provide our youngsters with Jewish and Zionist values. If we fail to overcome these challenges, we will lose our children and our future.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

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